History with Notre Dame on Baylor's mind

John Fineran
Tribune Coorespondent

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Memories of Notre Dame’s 88-69 victory in the South Bend Regional of the 2014 NCAA women’s basketball tournament still sit in the collective craw of head coach Kim Mulkey and her Baylor basketball team.

On the eve of Sunday’s 8:30 p.m. regional championship rematch between second-ranked Notre Dame (34-2) and fifth-ranked Baylor (33-3) in the Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Bears admitted the porridge Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw and her team prepared last March 31 hasn’t sat well during the 363-day hibernation in the series that Baylor still leads, 4-1.

For their part, McGraw and the Irish were businesslike in their approach Saturday before their final workout when meeting the press.

“We’re not a team that is a fiery, motivational, inspirational-talk kind of team before the game,” McGraw said Saturday. “I don’t have that personality. We play every game the same way, home or away, big game, regular game. We have the same approach.”

Teams generally reflect their emotions of their coach, and there’s no doubt that Mulkey will do more standing and cajoling of her team and the officials than McGraw, whose Philadelphia fire burns inside.

Make no mistake about it — Mulkey, a hard-nosed point guard at her alma mater, Louisiana Tech, and a firebrand as a head coach in her 15th season at Baylor, is ready and her team will be, too.

“I think like any competitor, you remember who ended your season,” said Mulkey, who led the Bears to a 40-0, national championship season in 2012. “It’s just ironic that we’re in the same situation as last year.”

That 40th victory in 2012, by the way, came against Notre Dame in the tilte game in Denver. The Bears won that time, 80-61, with 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, who was on hand for all four Baylor victories over Notre Dame during her career and that came by a margin of nearly 14 points a game.

Griner now plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, and gone from last season’s Baylor squad is guard Odyssey Sims, who scored 33 against Notre Dame to finish her senior season with 1,054 points.

But the cupboard isn’t exactly bare in Waco. Mulkey has 5-foot-11 forward Nina Davis, the Big 12 Player of the Year and scoring at a 20.9 clip, and 5-foot-8 junior point guard Niya Johnson, who had 10 points, 16 assists and zero turnovers in Baylor’s 81-66 Friday regional semifinal victory over Iowa.

Plus Mulkey got a double-double (23 points, 12 rebounds) from 6-4 senior post Sune Agbuke, who is in her first year of law school.

They are all fired up for the Irish, who last season got 30 points from Jewell Loyd and 19 points and 15 rebounds out of Natalie Achonwa before she crumpled to the floor at Purcell Pavilion with a serious knee injury that forced her to miss Notre Dame’s games in the Final Four.

Without Griner and Sims, Baylor is a different team, just as Notre Dame has changed from year-to-year with the losses of Skylar Diggins, Kayla McBride and Achonwa. But losses linger.

“Yeah, we didn’t forget them beating us,” Johnson said Friday. “We still talk about that to this day. We don’t remember the wins. We just remember the losses.”

Saturday, it didn’t seem she was backing off.

“I guess they were just feeding off their fans last year, and just the adversity they went through, and just taking us apart,” Johnson, the nation’s assists leader at 8.9 per game, added. “Well, looking at film today. We’ll try to fix that.”

Davis and Agbuke, who figure to give Notre Dame’s young frontcourt players Brianna Turner, Taya Reimer and Kathryn Westbeld much to handle, also were looking forward to the rematch.

“It’s just a great opportunity to be at this level and to be able to play them again,” Davis said.

“We’re very blessed and we’re just looking forward to it, to getting to go further,” Agbuke added.

The winner earns a berth in the women’s Final Four semifinals at Tampa’s Amalie Arena on Easter Sunday, April 5, against either South Carolina or Florida State out of the Greensboro Regional.

The approaches may be different, but there is mutual respect, too.

“I think they’ve gotten good contributions from a lot of different people, so they’re much more team-oriented in that you can’t focus on one person,” McGraw said. “In some ways they are a lot harder to guard. Kim has done a terrific job this year.”

Mulkey likes that she sees in Notre Dame.

“Yeah, Reimer and Turner are young, and they’ve had to fill big shoes for Notre Dame,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to fill those big shoes when you can have a Jewell Loyd leading you out there. I just think she’s the best player in the country.”

Loyd, who had 21 points, 17 in the second half Friday in the semifinal win over Stanford after Irish point guard Lindsay Allen scored 24 of her career-high 28 in the opening 20 minutes, prefers to let the others do the talking about the past.

“Last year is last year,” she said. “Every year is different. We’re a different team. Obviously, the matchup between (Johnson) and Lindsay is going to be awesome. Obviously, I’m biased, because this is my point guard here. But she (Johnson) has done a really good job for them.”

Let the talk end and the game begin.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw (center) said she strives to avoid the emotional peaks and valleys, including her approach to Sunday's NCAA regional final matchup with Baylor in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/SUE OGROCKI)

WHO: No. 1 seed Notre Dame (34-2) vs. No. 2 seed Baylor (33-3)

WHAT: Championship game of the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament's Oklahoma City Regional.

WHEN: Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET.

WHERE: Chesapeake Energy Arena (18,203); Oklahoma City, Okla.

TV: ESPN, ESPN3.com with WatchESPN app

RADIO: WHPZ-FM (96.9), WHPD-FM (92.1), watchND.tv

LIVE STATS: UND.com.

TICKETS: Available.

RANKINGS: Notre Dame is No. 2 in both the Associated Press media and Women's Basketball Coaches Association/USA Today rankings; Baylor is No. 5 AP, No. 6 WBCA/USA Today.

AT STAKE: Berth in Women's Final Four semifinals at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., April 5.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: In Friday night semifinals, No. 2 seed Baylor beat No. 3 seed Iowa, 81-66, and No. 1 seed Notre Dame beat No. 4 Stanford, 81-60.

STREAKING: Notre Dame has won 20 straight since a 78-63 loss at Miami, Fla., on Jan. 8; Baylor has won seven straight since back-to-back losses to Oklahoma and Iowa State at the end of February.

ND VS. BAYLOR:  Irish are 1-4 after 88-69 victory on March 31, 2014, to win South Bend Regional. 

THE LAST TIME: On March 31, 2014, Jewell Loyd scored 30 points (on 12-of-27 shooting) and Natalie Achonwa added 19 points and 15 rebounds as Notre Dame opened up a 44-32 halftime lead and went on to an 88-69 victory to capture the South Bend Regional championship title and their fourth straight trip to the Women's Final Four. Baylor guard Odyssey Sims concluded a brilliant season (1,054 points — eight short of the NCAA record held by Jackie Stiles of Missouri State) and career with 33 points on 12-of-26 shooting.